Most horror fans are familiar with Alexandre Aja’s work. From The Hills Have Eyes to the aquatic horror summer sleeper hit, Crawl, the man knows how to heighten tension and adrenalin so that we’re squirming in our seats. Now, the director is back, but in the sci-fi realm with his latest film, OXYGEN. The film tells the story of a young woman (Mélanie Laurent), who wakes up in a cryogenic pod. She doesn’t remember who she is or how she ended up there. As she’s running out of oxygen, she must rebuild her memory to find a way out of her nightmare.
For the release of his latest film OXYGEN, Nightmarish Conjurings had the chance to chat with Director Alexandre Aja, where we discussed the timeliness of Christie LeBlanc‘s script, how being in lockdown stoked the fires of creativity for the OXYGEN team, and how he tackled the logistics of filming and moving around that cryogenic chamber pod.
To start things off, how did this premise come about, or what interested you in the screenplay?
Alexandre Aja: I was finishing Crawl, so another movie about being trapped somewhere. [laughs] And, a producer friend of mine gave me that script without telling me anything. I started it and right away, I thought about how I love that kind of starting point, because it reminded me, of course, of Buried. When I watched Buried, I was like, “Ugh. Why I didn’t think about that?”
That movie is terrifying.
Alexandre Aja: Yes, so I was very excited, and then I was so surprised to see where the story was taking me. I really didn’t expect any of those twists and turns. And usually, I really behave more as a viewer before, you know, being a filmmaker. So, I could just imagine watching this movie, and so I knew I wanted to direct it. I really had that feeling of falling in love with the subject, and especially because there was also that emotional element to it, and that kind of very human, almost like [an] existential quest, as well.
Unfortunately, I was already committed to another movie. So, I was going to just produce it. And then COVID happened, and then everything stopped. I went back to Paris. Lockdown. Full lockdown. And then, OXYGEN took another meaning altogether, like everything that Christie LeBlanc put in that script before the pandemic became so timely, and even more powerful than it was before. Then it became a necessity for me as a filmmaker to make it. So, I just decided to find a way through Netflix to do it right away, right out of the lockdown in Paris, with Mélanie Laurent, and as fast as possible.
Wow. And that brings me to my next question, which was how was it working during the pandemic?
Alexandre Aja: I have to say that it was odd. We were obviously masked and respecting all the social distancing and all the protocol that was possible. But, I have to say that something very interesting happened. For all of us on set, we were so grateful to be back to work. We were so excited to be on the set. Every one of us were so aware that everything could stop at any moment because most of us came from movies that stopped right when the pandemic started. That I could feel that creative juice flowing, you know, that frustration over months of being locked down that was like piling up in people, from my production designer to my DP to my composer. It was like magic to see them being so creative. It almost makes you feel that, when you do a movie, you want to put everyone on a “Creative” diet for like six months at least to get them really good after.
Mélanie Laurent is extraordinary in this film. How did you know she was the right fit? And how did you prepare her for what she was about to experience?
Alexandre Aja: First, it’s an English script. So, first, we were going to do it in English, and Noomi Rapace was attached to be the lead, and she was spectacular. So, when we decided to do it in French, and I had to find someone else to replace Noomi, I knew I needed someone that will have the same skill, the same power, the same energy, the same credibility as a scientist. The same determination of surviving and fighting to the end, but also someone who could represent that new identity of the character that is more European and Parisian somehow. Mélanie is someone that I was following for a very long time. We met once, but she’s very different from all the other French or European actresses. She has this kind of very human emotional side, but, at the same time, she has that full range of being also like smart and connecting and taking you…I mean, it’s a very complex character, and I wanted someone like her to bring and make that complexity.
What was it like shooting? How was that set up? Because you have the pod, were there parts of it that you could take off?
Alexandre Aja: Yeah. We had two of them, and they were built like a big 3D puzzle. On the first day, it was taking a little bit of time to just remove [the] side to bring the camera. But after a couple of days, it was like a formula. You know, like stopping, changing, and everything was going super fast. So that was really great. But everything was real. All the screens were playing. I wanted Melanie to be able to feel that she was in the box, and that she has this screen and M.I.L.O. and all the sediment to interact with her. So everything was on set on the camera. And the good thing was that because we had only one set, we could shoot in continuity, which never happens in movies. So, we started with the opening of the movie, and we finished with the end, and that was really amazing to discover with her and go, you know, scene after scene, because we could re-adapt, change, explore different ideas, and be a little bit more open creatively of the process as we were going through the days.
And my last question is what was the most important thing that you wanted to convey to the audience, whether it was a certain part of the story or visually?
Alexandre Aja: I wanted to craft a real intense journey for the audience. Something that will start with a feeling of claustrophobia that will end up with, hopefully, the hope of a better tomorrow. It’s a movie about life, life after death, a movie about a lot of different things. It’s a really intense thriller, but it’s also how sci-fi is supposed to be.
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